|Ishmael Reed (National Black Writers Conference)|
He also has been a diehard champion of underrepresented perspectives in American literature, whether championing the work of Native American, Latino and Latina, Asian American, Arab American and mixed race writers, or founding Konch, which provided a venue for those writers, or editing over a dozen anthologies, such as From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900–2001 (2003), featuring writers of all backgarounds, or establishing with others the Before Columbus Foundation and PEN/Oakland, which has given out the American Book Awards to writers whom the mainstream literary world often ignored. His most frequent mode is satire, which often works very well, but sometimes not; but it has provided him with a means for engaging in one of the longest sustained critiques of of American exceptionalism, imperialism and structural racism of any American writer living. While producing this large and impressive body of work, he taught for 35 years at the University of California, Berkeley and elsewhere (which is where I encountered him). In 1998, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, perhaps considering not just his many literary works but his literary advocacy and community building efforts, honored him with their "Genius" Award.
Who am I talking about? I am talking about Ishmael Reed (1938-). And I will end this month with one of his best known--and, according to Gale Research, one of the most widely taught--poems in the curriculum. You may know which one I mean: "Beware: Do Not Read this Poem." It is a masterful post-modern poem about poetry's seductive power, the satire undercutting the figurative and literal horror Reed invokes when he talks about the film's and the poem's voracious, anthropophagic appetite, but then cites the US Census figures on missing persons, a stat whose bureaucratic and ominous significance shifts through its connection to poetry. Reed is saying, I think, through and amidst his satire, that poetry does have power, even if it might be rendered hyperbolic and linked to the obvious artifice of a "horror film" scenario and character. It makes you laugh and think. Look at yourself, the poem says: not just the poem, but the poet and the readers themselves, have quite a bit of power. The power to devour each other, but of a voraciousness that might not be so bad. If you let it, if it lets you.
BEWARE: DO NOT READ THIS POEM tonite, thriller was abt an ol woman , so vain she surrounded herself w/ many mirrors it got so bad that finally she locked herself indoors & her whole life became the mirrors one day the villagers broke into her house , but she was too swift for them . she disappeared into a mirror each tenant who bought the house after that , lost a loved one to the ol woman in the mirror : first a little girl then a young woman then the young woman/s husband the hunger of this poem is legendary it has taken in many victims back off from this poem it has drawn in yr feet back off from this poem it has drawn in yr legs back off from this poem it is a greedy mirror you are into the poem . from the waist down nobody can hear you can they ? this poem has had you up to here belch this poem aint got no manners you cant call out frm this poem relax now & go w/ this poem move & roll on to this poem do not resist this poem this poem has yr eyes this poem has his head this poem has his arms this poem has his fingers this poem has his fingertips this poem is the reader & the reader this poem statistic : the us bureau of missing persons re- ports that in 1968 over 100,000 people disappeared leaving no solid clues nor trace only a space in the lives of their friends
Copyright © Ishmael Reed, "Beware: Do Not Read This Poem," from New and Collected Poems, 1966-2006, New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006.